The term ‘great master’, is much bandied about in art parlance, often without much thought of the implications of these two words. For an art novice it may be a term that evokes a certain aura for it can be loaded with hidden implications that are hard to grasp. The first concern for most art lovers would be, who is a great master? How must we decide this? Especially with something as subjective as art which has infamously escaped the definition of good and bad, words that are still up for debate.
On the surface the term great master is often used to distinguish emerging talent from established names. It relies on a few ‘objective’ markers that have endured over the years, like technical command over formal aspects like line, colour, form, commitment to the discipline and artistic oeuvre. However there is always more to it than meets the eye.
The notion of becoming a great master artist is often linked to the phenomenon of ‘genius’, an individual of exceptional intellectual or creative power. In an essay entitled “God’s little artist” , art historians Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock examine how the myth of the genius as a creative individual is tied to the emergence of a new meaning for the word “artist.” According to Parker and Pollock, “That the artist as imaginative, creative, unconventional – a bohemian and a pioneer – is a constructed idea that came into being as certain ‘craftsmen’ strove to become more respected members of the cultural elite.”
While this well might be true, one must beg the question, what identity is not a result of social construction? Why should the artist be an exception? Given that an artist’s aura is a social construction, what are the factors that then go into the making of that ‘great master?’
Assuming that the technical skill and approach to subject and basic integrity is a given if one were to distill down the various pointers, one could come up with a set of questions that may serve as guidelines:
Is the artist a pioneer who has made a significant contribution in revolutionizing the way art is perceived?
Has s/he stretched the boundaries of what is perceived as art?
Is the artist historically relevant?
Does the artist have a following among young and emerging names?
Has the artist been successful in mentoring this following without becoming pedantic?
Has the artist contributed significantly to society?
If the artist is deceased, one often asks, has the artist left behind a legacy of works?
This question if often foremost in everyone’s mind: Has the artist established a significant and enduring price that has been recorded in auction houses and galleries?
Has the artist been collected by renowned collectors, and museums?
Finally we can mull over the words of Fran Cottell, who suggests in her essay “The cult of the individual” , “The idea perpetuated by the art market that individual geniuses arrive out of nowhere . . . is convenient but untrue. Artists invariably arrive at artistic solutions as a result of . . . social influences as well as for intellectual reasons.”